College Guide


September 10, 2012 11:00 AM Worthless Internships

By Daniel Luzer

Many, many college students have internships at some point during their studies. Pair or unpaid, students often see such experiences as necessary, both because college courses often require internship experience, and because past internships are so important when applying for a job.

But what are those internships actually like? According to a recent survey of interns conducted by Northwestern Mutual:

Results of the poll showed that 44 percent of college intern respondents found “adding the experience to their resume” was the most valuable part of their internship. However, the majority of respondents (68 percent) said that on most days they did not work on what they’d hope to do in a full-time career.
Earlier this year, the Economic Policy Institute, Northeastern University and Drexel University found that more than 50 percent of college graduates under the age of 25 were jobless or unemployed, according to research based on data from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey and the U.S. Department of Labor.

Northwestern valiantly tried to put a positive spin on this one.:

“It’s encouraging that students view internships as playing an important role in making themselves more attractive in the job market,” said Steven C. Mannebach, vice president - field growth and development at Northwestern Mutual. “While it’s discouraging that the poll shows a lack of real world work experience gained in many companies, Northwestern Mutual takes great pride in and places a strong emphasis and significant investment on building our industry leading internship program.”

Well that’s one way to think of it.

A more realistic look at the survey, however, might lead one to the conclusion that internships are pretty terrible. Students work at internships in order to look more attractive to potential employers. Then the work they do in those internships doesn’t have much to do with want they want in their careers. And then when they’re done—despite “students view[ing] internships as playing an important role in making themselves more attractive in the job market”—it doesn’t work; about half of them don’t get good jobs.

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • Paul Sas on September 11, 2012 11:59 PM:

    I'm not surprised most internships provide nearly zero experiential value. I spent a summer at IBM, granted entree by being a Watson scholar. I don't think I ever figured out how I could contribute any work of any value.

    In spite of the average experience offering zilch of value, the search for internships of actual value sparks a competition for the meritorial overachieving 1%. If you're really leveraged, you can end up interning somewhere amazing, such as Pandodaily, where at least one of the interns was loaned by Ben Horowitz (of Andreesen H) as a favor to Sara Lacy.

  • red sparrow on September 12, 2012 2:23 AM:

    "And with Darren's help, we'll get that chicken!"

  • bryan x on September 12, 2012 1:42 PM:

    Slavery used to be illegal.

  • Kim Atkins on September 12, 2012 6:24 PM:

    @red sparrow: that episode of Seinfeld (Season 9, Episode 2, "The Voice") is brought instantly to my mind whenever I hear someone tout the virtues of internships in general.

    (Scene: At NYU)

    KRAMER: Dean Jones, you wanting to talk to me?

    DEAN JONES: I’ve been reviewing Darren’s internship journal. Doing laundry…

    KRAMER: …Yeah.

    DEAN JONES: …Mending chicken wire, hi-tea with a Mr. Newman.

    KRAMER: I know it sounds pretty glamorous, but it’s business as usual at Kramerica.

    DEAN JONES: As far as I can tell your entire enterprise is more than a solitary man with a messy apartment which may or may not contain a chicken.

    KRAMER: And with Darren’s help, we’ll get that chicken.

    DEAN JONES: I’m sorry, but we can’t allow Darren to continue working with you.

    KRAMER: Well, I have to say this seems capricious and arbitrary.

    DEAN JONES: Your fly is open.